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Op-Ed: Novato Should Stop Building Downtown Offices

An open letter to the Novato City Council in light of redevelopment decision. Send your own letters to the editor to brent.ainsworth@patch.com.

To the Novato City Council:

Having just read the conclusion of the throughout California as well as ruling it illegal to continue to fund them in any manner, it is my hope that the current council will immediately stop any efforts to build a downtown office complex, that they will repay the bond debt created to fund this project and that they will instead purchase an existing class B office building to house city workers. 

Throughout 2011 the council has been approached by many residents who have said this project is fiscally unsound. A petition has circulated to stop the council from pursuing the development of a costly downtown civic center using RDA funds that have no way of being repaid because of a lack of property tax revenue as well as the Governor's decision early in 2011 to close the RDA. Our city council refused to listen to residents who claimed we would do better buying a modest existing office and use the downtown property to fund a public/private partnership with a mix of retail, commercial and parking. Our city council gambled hundreds of thousands of dollars by moving ahead and creating a non taxable bond that was sold to fund the project by keeping the RDA open. 

Had our city council considered some of the alternatives being suggested they would have saved vital tax dollars, but instead they have continued to follow the same path of bloated government using tax dollars to fund projects that may appear attractive but do nothing to help create tax dollars to support city services. A public-private partnership on a project such as the downtown civic center would have allowed us to defray costs and create a source of badly needed revenue by working with the private sector rather than using state tax dollars. Over the years prominent Novato citizens have made this suggestion and been flatly turned down. We can't afford to continue to live as if the money will flow in through the state coffers and cover all our costs. The city must live within its means just as families are struggling to do and just as the state is struggling to do in order to avoid bankruptcy. 

I implore the Novato City Council to take immediate steps to repay the loan that no longer has funding through the RDA and to purchase modest city offices at a reduced cost. Moreover I demand that the Novato City Council listen to the voice of reason as well as the many voices of Novato residents when making financial decisions whose outcomes will affect our lives for generations. Now is not the time to live lavishly. You are accountable to all your constituents not just the ones that agree with you. Every decision you make determines the quality of our lives as a whole. Our city, whose bottom line is creating revenue to fund city services, should be run like a business. Our city coffers are not the personal piggy banks of our council members. Their job is to keep the city running in a fiscally responsible manner. That means focusing on planning and the economy.  We need a council that understands and accepts the reality of the tremendous debt that is burying our state. We need a council that will act with prudence and show respect for the people they serve. 

Tina McMillan 

Craig Belfor January 03, 2012 at 07:51 PM
I got an email in response to my earlier blog post about overpaid city workers. "M" wrote "It is not City employees who are doing this! It is the City management and the Council! You have no idea how employees feel about this issue - many of us are residents of Novato just like you, and may be in agreement about not building this, but we have NO say in the matter. We are not "oblivious" to the recession, our salaries have been on a reduction for quite a few years now and we are just scrapping by. Most of us are NOT highly paid! Please stop dumping on the employees of Novato who work so hard to serve you with such limited resources!" I apologize to the workers and thank M for her imput. I also realize that nobody has spoken to the workers who will inhabit the new digs. What do they want? What do they really need? How much less space could they work in? How could each department consolidate and economize? I'm sure they're under some pressure to not rock the boat from superiors, but I'd like to see some answers from them in private. Send them to me or Tina (she's the only honest, fair, competent one that you can trust). Your name will be withheld.
David Randolph January 03, 2012 at 08:40 PM
The City Council cost us $750 per sq. ft. to redo the old City Hall building, including jacking it up and moving it a few feet. Absurd. It could have been done so much cheaper had they saved the tower portion, bulldozed the old structure and built a new one from scratch. Now they want to spend $1000 per sq. ft. (!) to build a new city office building, right where retail development should go. Look up clueless and you'll see a photo of the five CC members who voted for this overpriced, wrong-placed project.
David Randolph January 03, 2012 at 09:39 PM
The joke is on you…
Worry January 03, 2012 at 09:44 PM
Tina, thank you for taking the time to present facts and your opinion on this very important topic. This "ship" has not sailed until the building is standing. Keep up the informed fight.
Carol January 03, 2012 at 10:58 PM
Bud Light - You should be ashamed of the tone you use with your neighbors. You are a pathetic bully.
Susan Clark January 04, 2012 at 02:44 AM
Sounds like Bug Light forgot to take his meds.
Mark Burnham January 04, 2012 at 05:55 AM
has there been one single argument put forward by the supporters of this city hall project that addresses the $$$$$? or this building taking every single parking space on that lot during the day and night?? i have not yet seen one person on patch, or in the ij, anywhere lay out how this building will revitalize downtown. nothing. you get name calling from bud light who can't spell "arse" and who definitely is drinking on the job and the others who just keep saying "too bad we already voted on it". i'd like to hear those who want this project to put up a well thought out rebuttal to what these other writers up top have put serious and critical thought in to. also i want to thank you tina for your piece here.
Tina McMillan January 04, 2012 at 06:21 AM
Mark You're right. The city has not shown how building downtown will create more revenue. The rationale is that the office workers will use the services downtown during their lunch break. The council seems to feel that having an attractive city center will by itself revitalize the downtown. Former council members Stompe and Willhelm have also been instrumental in the change of heart about building in old town rather than purchasing an existing class B building. This bond money is one time funding that we will never see again. We have a single shot at spending it so that we can cover a lot of ground. Theoretically it could be used to purchase a class B office building outside of old town for around $6 million. The remaining $11 million could be used to rehab the community house, create parking and either rehab or move the other remaining condemned buildings. If the area was used with a private developer there is potential to create retail/commercial/parking. The city has rejected previous offers to do this. Please tell friends and neighbors if you feel the city has made a mistake. We need letters, phone calls and emails going to the council. novatocouncil@cityofnovato.org As Worry says, the ship hasn't sailed yet…..
cathy January 04, 2012 at 02:43 PM
Thumbs up to you too, Craig!
Rhonda January 04, 2012 at 09:36 PM
We sent in our email to the Novato Council today! Thank you Tina.
Edwin Drake January 06, 2012 at 03:50 AM
Hey Bud Light - I just figured it out - you're really Denise Athas using a pseudonym. Way to go Denise!
Mark Burnham January 06, 2012 at 04:32 AM
Ed, Bud Light may be a lot of things but he/she is not D. Athas. That is insulting and uncalled for. Athas may have voted in favor of building downtown but she is literate, friendly, and not prone to wasting time by insulting people. These are all traits of this Bud Light character you reference. You should remove your post and apologize to Athas.
Craig Belfor January 06, 2012 at 05:54 AM
Bud Light is entitled to his opinion. Obviously he is not alone. Although abrasive, ( I find him fun) his feelings are founded on the idea that sound minds, after looking at all of the facts, decided that this was the best route to take, and we should trust our elected officials to do their job. This was a controversial decision, so there will always be opposing views. The only way to decide this issue is to vote on it. I say we include it in our next election.
Edwin Drake January 08, 2012 at 07:50 PM
Here's how it works: I'm the extremist who makes it easier for more moderate voices to be heard as reasonable. As it is, everyone is so "reasonable" around here that when the Frank and the council just ignore voters and the law, the moderates just say "Oh well" and go away. [Huzzah for a snmall group who refuse to give up.] Novato would be a better place if the politics didn't involve making sure only "nice" things are said. A little more open honesty would go a long way around here because until recently, and even more now, the Novato city council would make the Tea Party proud, including phony Democrat Madeline Kellner. Even if you're pro-City Hall you must admit they've handled the issue terribly, as they have every issue for the past few years. It's been a string of whispers from the chamber of commerce getting turned in policy. (Pro-City Hall people please explain to me how Prop D doesn't fit this situation? And do you really want to be represented by a majority that split hairs to get their way?) Now with Lucan, and a 4 to 1 conservative bent, I'm sure we'll have even more "freedom" for developers to turn Novato into a crappy little town without any concern shown to the placement, size, or look of developments. Again and again, I say look to Santa Monica -- they DEMANDED amenities from developers which made the town nicer which increased property values. Novato is simply prostituting itself, and not even getting dinner and a movie out of it.
Roger January 08, 2012 at 08:21 PM
Edwin, nice to see you back to the Patch. What do you think of Bio-Marin HQ moving from Wood Hollow in Novato to San Rafael with a 10-year lease? Don't you agree the blame for the loss for Novato of those high-paying jobs (and lunch time purchases, etc) rest in part with the City Council's lack of zoning more land for commercial? San Rafael and Petaluma zone double the % of land that Novato does for commercial/business. Council members should meet with Bio-Marin CEO and ask what the city could do to keep Novato as the center for bio-tech growth in the Bay Area, I feel.
Tina McMillan January 08, 2012 at 08:33 PM
Roger It's worse than double, San Rafael is actually triple - Novato at 5%; Petaluma at 11%; San Rafael at 17% commercial zoned. The old town property which is the site for the city office building is one of the few remaining areas downtown that could be used for parking and additional retail. There is no monetary benefit to offices that will be closed three days a week and evenings in that location. Our zoning is problematic (look up the rules for putting another mortuary in Novato; it is currently impossible) and we desperately need the general plan updated.
Bob Ratto January 08, 2012 at 09:22 PM
The BioMarin situation is pretty bad, while it sounds like they are going to stay with part of the workforce, management is headed to better quarters in San Rafael. If this came as a surprise to the Chamber/Council, then it is another example of weak governance, as it would seem that trying to keep them in Novato would be a "no brainer". The lack of transparency with regard to the City is not simply isolated in the Council building and skirting of Measure D, it also existed in the untimely formalization of the notes between the City and RDA, and the 13th hour decision to float bonds and then to try keep and RDA going through hostage fees. While city leaders can all pat themselves on the back and pose with a new monument, fiscally they are going to find they will have built a shiny building that won't be supporting many employees because of ongoing deficits, part of which are created by debt service. Poor handling was also exemplified with the AH issue, when decisions were meted out without any transparency or notification, forcing the setup of a group, whose hard work and decisions were largely ignored. While many choose to remain oblivious to issues, when they see the impact of poor decision making maybe they will awaken.
Tina McMillan January 08, 2012 at 11:30 PM
Bud…. No chance of breaking ground sooner than fall. That has been the plan all along. Sorry to disappoint. Surprised you don't know that. Perhaps you are a just disgruntled fellow with an axe to grind. Either way, the plan is September not March. Good to see you staying on point. I look forward to more belligerent comments as the day goes on.
Craig Belfor January 08, 2012 at 11:32 PM
Like Edwin says- a good nut case with the balls to speak his mind can really get the discussion rolling, so here's my "Bud-Light" rant- We buy Wyndover from the company that owns it. We use the elimination of all the tax breaks (that Jerome suggested) for them not living up to their contract to keep a good safe environment that doesn't cost the city excess police, ambulance, and fire services to get a better price. We wouldn't lose any tax base, as we don't get much now. We move the city workers in there, giving each worker their own office, private lounge, wet bar, bathroom, and deck, with plenty of parking. We take the money we save and buy out the tenants that live there now, giving them a bus ride home to where they were born and raised. We pay the penalties for lack of affordable housing, tell SMART to roll on past Novato so we don't have to jump through their hoops, and for the three or four people in Wyndover who actually were born and raised in Novato and actually have a job, we take the last of the money and buy them a house. No more beggars, Octo-BoBs, or police sirens. We'd be set back 50 years, when the air was clean and sex was dirty. I liked it then.
cathy January 08, 2012 at 11:39 PM
Thanks for the good chuckle!
Tina McMillan January 09, 2012 at 02:46 AM
Bud Taking out a tree is not quite beginning construction but you are correct this project has yet to put on the brakes despite the impact of the RDA being completely shut down. We have yet to hear from the council following the letter from the Measure F committee. The measure F committee was formed to address the fiscal crisis that compelled the council to ask residents to increase sales tax to cover city services and prevent more layoffs. The same committee has told the council they need to put the brakes on the office project as it is currently conceived. It will be interesting to see their response.
Tina McMillan January 09, 2012 at 02:46 AM
Details showing timeline http://www.cityofnovato.org/Index.aspx?page=1740 DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION PHASE PROCESS PRESENTATION Low Bid Estimate Cost Estimate Based on Schematic Design 'Hard' Costs Site work ............................................................................................................................. $750,000 Building ......................................................................................................................... $10,550,000 Subtotal .......................................................................................................................... $11,300,000 Construction Contingency (10%) .................................................................................... $! ,100,000 Total Estimated Construction Cost ................................................................................ $12,400,000 'Soft' Costs Consultants (design, project management, etc.) .............................................................. $1,850,000 Other costs (fees, utilities, furnishings, moving, etc) ...................................................... $1 ,050,000 Total Estimated Soft Cost ................................................................................................ $2,900,000 I Total Project Cost .......................................................................................................... $15,300,000
Baxter January 09, 2012 at 03:33 AM
I'm not an expert on any of this, and am on the fence regarding the development of this project. I believe the City could still compromise and make it smaller. I do believe, according to Michael Frank's Staff Report of 5/10/11, that an enviromental impact report still needs to be completed. And, I believe the public can comment on this report, or at least should be able to. According to Mr. Frank's staff report, the estimated costs for CEQA mitigations could be up to $850,000 (this is separate from the 11+ million building costs). When will the EIR be completed for public comment, and what exactly will be these protential costs for environmental impact mitigation be used for? May 10th Staff Report: http://ci.novato.ca.us/agendas/pdfstaffreports/cc11_094.pdf
Trish Boorstein January 09, 2012 at 06:03 AM
Baxter, I'm sorry to sound pessimistic, but after 15+ public speakers spoke out against the EIR for Hanna Ranch and only Coy Smith who is not a Novato resident spoke for it, the Council, minus Pat E., approved it with Lucan saying that the positive merits outweighed the negative. This City Office building will be like MillWorks; wrong location, wrong size!!!!, wrong architecture, wrong cost, wrong materials, wrong everything. The original architectural firm McDonald who has a model of the original project is probably better designed for the entire area.
Edwin Drake January 10, 2012 at 07:04 AM
Most horrible about the Hanna Ranch decision is the giving away of the floating easement. In governance terms this is akin to treason. One thing I can't understand - and trust me, the list is endless - is why aren't more citizens roiling mad about how this city is governed? I'm not talking about the decisions, although I think they stink and Frank's a manipulative idiot. I mean the backroom dealing, the bad communication with the public, the refusal to ask developers for tit-for-tat amenities or fees, the ignoring of speakers at the council meetings. How is it that the entire town isn't fuming at the way money is being flushed and all Novato is getting is ugly buildings and bad planning?
Edwin Drake January 10, 2012 at 07:10 AM
As for Bio-Marin: How does this happen? If I'm Frank I'm phoning them once a week asking if everything is OK and if there's ANYTHING the city can do for you? I'm not saying we'll roll over and give them whatever they want, BUT the lines of communication need to be kept open so things like this don't come out of the blue. Wait till Fireman's Fund closes shop and the city blames everyone but themselves. One note: Once read that most Fortune 500 HQs go where the boss like to play (ie: golf, hunt, boat, etc) no matter the logic of the thing. Since BioMarin is moving to class A space in beautiful bldgs, (they really are nice, go take a look) maybe it's more of a commute and access issue than Novato stinks issue. Then again, isn't 75 Rowland going to be empty soon? ps: Happy New Year all
Sylvia Barry January 10, 2012 at 08:06 AM
As for Bio-Marin, I personally think this is purely a business decision on Bio-Marin's part. The Corporate Center in San Rafael is a relatively new building, designed and built specifically for this kind of purpose - corporate center - I go there at times for business reasons, so I am familiar with those buildings and the surroundings. It's more centralized in Marin and closer to the city (San Francisco), closer to transportation, to different restaurants and shops which means they will be able to attract more talent. Being new, I would think the design and infrastructure are also more geared towards today's business world. From a couple articles i read, it also has a lot more expansion possibilities for Bio-Marin, which means they don't need to move again if they expand in the future. This is looking from the real estate angle. As much as I wish we have the biotech/high tech center ready in Novato to house all high paying jobs and all the biotech talents and I am still rooting for that. But it will take time with the whole city behind it. Novato chose to be a laid back town and it can't have it both ways. I also seriously doubt city manager or chamber is surprised at the direction Bio-Marin took on this.
Baxter January 10, 2012 at 04:31 PM
All the more reason for the City of Novato NOT to rezone properties that are already zoned for Business Office/Commercial. Petaluma is a "laid back town" and Novato often compares itself with Petaluma, i.e., Novato wishing for the Suburban classification instead of Metropolitan. However, according to Tina (above) Petaluma is at 11% zoned commercial vs. Novato at 5%, with San Rafael at 17% and counting. With the SMART train station back in the works for construction, the City needs to keep Redwood Blvd. north of Fireman's Fund zoned for BO/Commercial and not rezoned for residential/affordable housing. Tenants of housing at this location will not take the train to get around Novato's services, schools, etc. unless they work and enroll at Hamilton because the train does not service all of Novato (not even the downtown!). The City will be making a big mistake if they rezone already commercially zoned property near Fireman's Fund. Keep that area business/corporate so there will actually be a reason to get on and off the train at the Atherton station.
Tina McMillan January 10, 2012 at 05:32 PM
With the RDA closing it will be substantially more difficult to find money to build affordable housing. Novato will still be required to update their housing element to include quotas. I don't know how this will be impacted by MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) but they are the folks that set the numbers related to the SMART train. Here is a link to a Dick Spotswood column lambasting MTC for purchasing a 1940's office building in SF to rehab. They will be moving out of Oakland and away from where the majority of their employees live. It is an interesting kind of hypocrisy when you say your focus is combining transportation, jobs and housing and yet you move away from that yourself. http://www.marinij.com/opinion/ci_19691993 I think that we need to add more commercial development in Novato to generate revenue to pay for infrastructure. Commercial is not the same as affordable housing. BioMarin was a wonderful business but we just lost them to San Rafael. At the very least we should have zoned 10% commercial. If you read the general plan from 1996 there was a specific shift away from allowing commercial development. It seems to be associated with more traffic congestion and damage to the environment. The problem with this assumption is the lack of balance between housing, jobs and resources. I believe it is time to update the general plan. We need to draw businesses with well paid jobs that will revive our local economy.
Trish Boorstein January 10, 2012 at 09:36 PM
Edwin, the floating easement was not given away. Michael Frank probably decided that the audience couldn't take another hit, so he postponed it to a January meeting. It's not on the agenda for tonight. He wants to sell it to Urban One for their development. The two lane road that will cross this property will be private, for their use only. We as a community should demand that this remain public and according to the Novato General Plan, continue from Rowland Blvd. all the way to hwy 37. This is such poor planning!!!!! Besides the McPhail property needs to be connected to this road so everyone can exit or enter via 37 to access all the developments including Vintage Oaks. We NEED two points of entrance to all this area! Please stay informed as to when it will be on the agenda for city meeting. Thanks

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